When it comes to computer crime, the word “hacking” seems to be the buzzword. Yet, not many are really sure of who hackers are and how they evolved. Being one of the oldest phenomena in the arena of computers, hacking has a rich history dating as far back as the 70s and it is still evolving today. Indeed, the word itself has gone through a total metamorphosis from a praiseworthy term to one that conjures images of hatred and destruction. This page provides some background information on hackers and hacking in general.
- When did computer hackers come into existence?
- Highlights: The 1970s
- Highlights: The 1980s
- Highlights: The 1990s
- Highlights: The Year 2000
The first and original computer hackers emerged in the 1960s at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). However, the word “hack” signified a totally different meaning then. At that time, it referred to an elegant and clever technique of doing almost anything on the computer. These “hacks” were basically computer shortcuts that made computing tasks quicker. The good old hacking was basically exploring and figuring out how the wired world works. Geeks who did this were called hackers.
The earliest known use of the term “hacking” is from the 20 November 1963 issue of The Tech, the student paper of the MIT. Click here to see an excerpt from the paper, with the use of the term (external link).
“Hacking” was possibly derived from the metaphor of continually hacking or chopping away at an object, until it finally gives way. However, today, the term is often used to describe computer criminals who break into or harm computers. Therefore, purists want those who break into computers to be called as “crackers” rather than “hackers”.
Phone hackers start emerging. More commonly known as phreakers, they break into phone networks to make free phone calls. Perhaps, the most famous of these phreakers was John Draper (aka "Cap'n Crunch"), who discovered that toy whistles given away with Cap'n Crunch cereals generate a 2600-hertz sound, which can be used to access AT&T's long-distance switching system.
Draper proceeded onto build a "blue box" which, when used together with the whistle, allowed phreakers to make free calls. Shortly after, wire fraud in the United States escalates.
1980s saw the phreakers beginning to move into the world of computer hacking. Here are some significant events that happened in this decade.
1980 : Hacking groups
Hacking groups are formed. They used the electronic bulletin board systems (BBSs), which were the predecessor to Usenet newsgroups and e-mail, to share tips and keep in contact.
1984 : Hacking Magazines
The first hacker magazine called 2600 is published. This magazine was published regularly and offered tips for would-be hackers and phone phreaks. Even today, larger retail bookstores sell copies of 2600.
1986 : Computer Fraud and Abuse Act
Alarmed by the larger numbers of computer break-ins, the US government passes the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This made it a crime to illegally break into computer networks. The law did not apply to juveniles.
1988 : Robert Morris's worm
Robert Morris becomes the first person to be convicted under the new Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986. Morris was punished for his Internet worm, which crashed 6,000 Net-linked government and university computers. He was sentenced to three years’ probation and was fined $10,000.
There were quite a number of high profile cases of hacking. More and more people are breaking into computer systems. In addition, there was plenty of hacking tools available due to the flourishing of the Internet, which enabled even amateurs to learn how to hack into computers.
1990 : Operation Sundevil
Operation Sundevil is carried out, which made an attempt to crack down on hackers across the United States. It was aimed to curb credit-card theft and telephone fraud. As a result, the hacker community suffered a degree of breakdown.
1993 : Kevin Poulsen "wins" Porsche
A radio station conducted a call-in contest, in which the 102nd caller gets a Porsche. Kevin Poulsen, together with two of his friends, broke into the radio stations' phone systems so as to let only their calls through and, hence, "won" the prize. Poulsen, who was already a wanted man for breaking into phone-company systems, was sentenced for five years in prison for wire and computer fraud.
1994 : Internet gives hacking a facelift
The take off of the World Wide Web made the hacker groups abandon the old Bulletin Board Systems and set up hacker websites. Information related to hacking becomes more widely available and hacking starts to become even more dangerous and widespread.
1995 : Capture of Kevin Mitnick
After a highly eventful and publicized chase, serial computer criminal, Kevin Mitnick is captured by federal agents and charged with stealing 20,000 credit card numbers. He was kept in the prison for four years without any bail and this sparked a huge furor amongst the underground hacking community.
He eventually served 60 months of prison sentence.
1999 : An avalanche of security products
Microsoft releases Windows 98. Hundreds of patches are released in this year as newly found bugs and security loopholes are detected in Windows and other software packages. Hence, many security related products, such as firewalls make their entry into the market, to protect the computers against hackers.
A new form of attack called the “Denial of service” (DoS) attack has emerged. These attacks are targeted against the domain name servers of well-known websites such as Yahoo!, eBay and Microsoft.
In the year 2000, hackers launched one of the biggest DoS attack, to date, which knocked many sites such as Yahoo! and Amazon offline.
In 2001, Microsoft’s website was similarly brought offline by these DoS attacks. Although the attack was detected within the first few hours, millions of users could not access Microsoft’s website for two days.
Etymologies and Word Origins
Timeline: A 40-year history of hacking
Hacking: A history
A Brief History of Hacking by Michelle Slatalla
Timeline of hacker history